The worst of it was neither the yearlong bouts of sleeplessness due to searing pain nor the arthroscopic surgery he'd undergone on Dec. 12, a risky invasion of golf's most precious left knee that kept him from competitive play for the longest stretch since he'd learned to spell. Nor was it kicking around his Windermere, Fla., home, wistfully eyeing videotapes of himself doing things with clubs that he now couldn't do, or watching his fellow pros gorging themselves on fat purses while he was stretching and lifting and playing the occasional video game.
No, the pain and inactivity and boredom were nothing compared to the doubt they'd fostered in Tiger Woods. So last Thursday at the Buick Invitational, when Woods awkwardly pivoted on his left leg as he sent the first drive of his long-awaited return to the PGA Tour screaming into the right rough at San Diego's Torrey Pines Golf Course, he was overcome by a feeling he seldom experiences on a golf course: simple, joyous surprise. "[During the swing] I saw my spike slip in the ground," he said, "but there was no pain. Last year that shot would've been unbelievably painful, even with painkillers. I knew then what I'd done was right."
By Saturday afternoon so did everyone else. After a nine-hole, fog-shortened struggle on Thursday, Woods took the lead on Saturday and won going away, shooting a four-under-par 68 on Sunday to finish at 16-under 272, good for an $810,000 check and his 27th Tour victory in 29 attempts when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead. His comeback was a stunning achievement, one that showcased Woods's flair for the spectacular as well as his underrated ability to grind.
The week had started with Phil Mickelson's bombshell quote in Golf Magazine, in which he dogged Woods's Nike clubs and boasted that he was longer than Tiger off the tee. When an 18th-hole birdie on Saturday vaulted Mickelson into Sunday's final group with Woods and Brad Faxon, that round morphed into a nasty clash between two of the world's top three players.
Those 18 holes, played before immense galleries, were charged with major-championship electricity. Little surprise, then, that Woods was as focused and brilliant as ever, extending his one-stroke lead with three birdies in the first six holes, or that Mickelson failed to capitalize on several early birdie opportunities and, staring into the maw of a charging Tiger, saw his own game fail him yet again.
As he gamely worked his hometown crowd after a 72 left him in a tie for fourth, six shots behind Woods, Mickelson sounded an all-too-familiar refrain. "I tried to be patient, and a couple of things happened, and it didn't quite click," he said. "What impresses me the most [about Woods] is that it isn't easy to step in and out of competition. I like to play a couple of tournaments and work my way into a competitive mindset. He's able to walk in and out of it at will."
Mickelson would do well to keep any further critiques of Tiger to himself. Part of Woods's genius lies in finding a challenge where none exists. Mickelson's ill-advised remarks—"Tiger hates that I can fly it past him now. He has a faster swing speed than I do, but he has inferior equipment. Tiger is the only player good enough to overcome the equipment he's stuck with"—were just the kick Woods needed. "Tiger was gracious about it, but I think he used it as fuel," said Faxon, who finished third, five shots behind Woods. "As if he needed any more fuel."
Though Woods and Mickelson downplayed the controversy, the quote had clearly irked Woods. During his only practice round, played in a steady rain early on Tuesday, Woods crushed a drive, then said to a small group of fans, "Pretty good for inferior equipment, eh?" That was one of many shots Woods took at his wouldn't-be rival. (Their relationship can best be described as professional.) Woods dismissed Mickelson's comments as "foolish" and an example of "Phil being Phil—kind of a smart aleck. He tried to be funny, and it didn't work."
On Sunday, Mickelson outdrove Woods on four of the five holes on which both players hit the fairway and for the week averaged 299.1 yards off the tee to Tiger's 298.0, but it mattered not. Woods favored accuracy over distance on Sunday, when gusts off the Pacific made big drives dangerous. Woods hit nine fairways to Mickelson's six, and 14 greens in regulation to Mickelson's 12. While Woods performed a surgical up-and-down from a bunker for birdie on the 6th, Mickelson knocked his bunker shot past the hole and off the green; even he had to laugh when one of Woods's supporters bellowed, "Hey, Phil! Must be the shoes!"
Woods's final round was stocked with memorable moments, including his 227-yard four-iron into a murderous head wind to within three feet on the par-3 11th and his 200-yard four-iron on the par-4 15th from deep rough, which he ripped low through two trees and then over a bunker fronting the green to within 15 feet, setting up his final birdie. But make no mistake: Woods became a two-time Buick winner only because of his erratic yet dogged opening 70, a two-under adventure over two days that proved to Woods that he was ready to compete, even as he battled a balky driver. Good fortune, too, played a part. For his first round, he drew the shorter, more forgiving North course, which had been softened by two days of rain that dampened his inaccuracy off the tee. (He hit only two fairways through his first 18 holes.) During his convalescence Woods hadn't worked much with his driver, so he had to adjust on the fly, fixing a flaw that would've doomed him on the South course. "I was very lucky to start on the North," he said on Sunday. "If I hadn't, I would've easily shot a 76 or 77."